Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Social Darwinism: We're Soaking In It

David Rosen has a decent summary of Social Darwinism's history and its current incarnation. Here's a bit:
Social Darwinism was a late-19th century belief system that applied Darwin's theory of natural selection to human existence. It was especially popular among the American and British elite because it placed them, the white Christian male, at the top of evolutionary scale.

The first rule in this misreading of Darwin's theory was a self-serving moral assumption: Humans occupy the highest rung in the evolutionary of animal life. Some went further, arguing that consciousness separated humans from animals and, thus, from natural life itself. Once this fundamental break with Darwin's belief in nature's interconnected integrity was made, humans could easily further legitimize fragmenting themselves into still more hierarchical structures, whether based on age, gender, race, geography, belief, class, sexual orientation or whatever.

Proponents of Social Darwinism, particularly Herbert Spencer, popularized concepts like "the struggle for existence" and "the survival of the fittest." This belief system took different forms in different countries, sometimes with horrendous consequences. In Germany, the biologist Ernst Haeckel divided humankind into races with "Aryans" at the top and Jews and Africans at the bottom.

In the U.S., notions of racial identity were augmented by concepts of personal purity and global conquest. Teddy Roosevelt was the prime representative of this all-American belief system, turning it into a national policy. Proponents of Social Darwinism championed a moral belief system based on three interrelated principals. First, self-hood was represented by the rugged individualist, the masculine warrior who achieves his full human realization on the battlefield of laissez-faire capitalism. Second, to function at its most optimal, this social system required "social purity" of sexual repression and a eugenics-breeding program. Finally, this new American value system assumed that the globe was a terrain of conquest; it embraced an international, imperialist outlook proudly called manifest destiny, the "white man's burden."

These principals fashioned a moral outlook that linked the truth of one's conduct to the social position one occupied. If one was rich, socially prominent and white one could get away with almost anything. Thus, the "crimes" of the rich and the poor were both legally and morally different. For Social Darwinists, morality was based on class privilege.

No one was more a proponent of Social Darwinism then John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil trust and America's grandest robber baron and Christian philanthropist. He argued that his efforts were the result of "a survival of the fittest, ... the working out of a law of nature and a law of God."

Rockefeller, and others who shared his belief system, engaged in a great intellectual trick. They artfully suppressed the fundamental contradiction between Christian theology and scientific rationality. They collapsed Darwin's theory, grounded in empirical observation, into Christian doctrine, a faith in Adam and Eve.

This rationalization of religion and science, of God and Darwin, facilitated the rationalization of still other intellectual and political practices. Rockefeller and many of the other titans of American capitalism of his generation felt no moral discomfort over the murderous suppression of strikes in Ludlow or military interventions in Cuba and the Philippines.
Now I would quibble with him about the recent economic collapse ushering in a new era of Social Darwinism. I've been arguing for a while that the economic philosophy and practice of neoliberalism is essentially a warmed-over version of Social Darwinism and has been ascendant in the US at least since the 1980s, and is the orthodox "wisdom" of the Beltway elite - at the expense of the rest of us. We certainly see a "survival of the fittest"/"dog eat dog" mentality governing the neglect of state and federal economies and infrastructure over the last few years. I am convinced that the lack of protest in reaction to our worsening social and economic conditions is a symptom:
Social Darwinism also came back with a vengeance during the 1980s. Oliver James views the publication of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene as providing some of the "scientific" justification to the kill or be killed mentality that neoliberals hold as self-evident. That book, along with others in the realm of economics would be the touchstones of contemporary discourse. We are conditioned to accept that those who are at the top of the economic heap are those who are "most fit" and that those at the bottom are "merely the result of poor breeding." That mindset is indoctrinated throughout our K-12 years, and reinforced through plenty of mass-media propaganda. Neoliberalism is hyper-individualistic at its core, and such hyper-individualism does not foster the sort of fellowship or solidarity needed to sustain any sort of leftist social movement.
I've also argued that it's no accident that we've seen - at least in movement conservative circles - a rise in acceptability of the pseudoscience of eugenics, which itself was quite acceptable during the first Gilded Age. Someone once remarked that ours is an era in which we witness "the fetishizing of power as a replacement for morality." That would seem apt enough.

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